Pun for your life

A rare example of a jester facing execution and all the more exceptional for having the ruler about to strike the fatal blow himself.  Equally astonishing is the quick-wittedness to come up with a pun which made the emperor laugh and so commute the death sentence.  This is a new angle on gallows humour – having the cool-headedness and psychological acuity to talk your way out of imminent execution.  

Tang Zhuangzong 唐莊宗 (r. 923-26), enraged by the joking insolence of his jester Newly Polished Mirror (Jing Xinmo 鏡新磨):

… drew his bow, aimed his arrow and was about to shoot him.  Newly Polished Mirror shouted urgently, `Don’t kill me Your Majesty, we are of the same mettle you and I and it would be unpropitious for you to kill me!’  The emperor was astonished and asked him what he meant, so he answered, `When you founded your dynasty, you changed the reign title to Unifying Splendour [Tong Guang] and all under heaven called Your Majesty the Emperor of Unifying Splendour.  `Unifying’ [tong] equals `bronze mirror’ [tong].  If you kill Newly Polished Mirror, the bronze mirror [tong] will lose its shine [guang]!’  The emperor burst out laughing, and forgave him.


You can imagine the emperor, despite a fit of fury, being nevertheless intrigued enough by the initial comment to hold fire and hear out the jester.

Source: `Lingguan zhuan’ 伶官傳, in Xin Wudai shi 新五代史 (The Historical Records of the Five Dynasties), by Ouyang Xiu 歐陽脩 (1007-72) and others, fol. 37, Siku Quanshu 四庫全書 (Shanghai: Guji Chubanshe, 1987), vol. 279.

Photo credit: PaulSBarlow at pixabay


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